So much attention has been placed on the lack of scoring from the New Jersey Devils in recent years, the team’s poor defense went largely unnoticed outside the Garden State last season.
New Jersey ranked 20th in shots allowed, 23rd in penalty-kill percentage and 24th in goals against last season. If the Devils controlled the puck and managed to create more offensive zone time, these numbers might not have been quite as bad, but still, New Jersey has its fair share of question marks on the blue line heading into 2017-18.
And that includes the team’s best defenseman from last season, Damon Severson. The 23-year-old appears to have a bright future, but for New Jersey to take the next step this season, Severson will have to begin seizing the role of a No. 1 defenseman.
In 2016-17, Severson recorded three goals and 31 points. He had an ugly minus-31 rating, but possessed a Corsi For Percentage of exactly 50.0 and a very respectable 4.3 Corsi For Relative Percentage. Besides the plus/minus, he ranked best on the team in all these categories among defensemen.
Where he didn’t lead the group, though, was minutes play. Severson averaged 20:21 per game, which was third for New Jersey behind Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy.
Greene was once a strong possession defenseman for the Devils, but now 34, those days are finished. He’s posted a Corsi For Percentage below 48.0 percent each of the last three seasons.
Similar things can be said about Lovejoy. With the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was protected as a bottom-pairing defenseman and penalty-kill specialist.
But in his first season with the Devils in 2016-17, he was asked to played nearly two more minutes per game than he did the previous season in Pittsburgh. It resulted in a career-worst 43.2 Corsi For Percentage and team-low (among skaters with more than 60 games played) minus-6.3 Corsi For Relative Percentage for Lovejoy.
It doesn’t really matter how much the Devils offense improves, this team isn’t going to compete in the Metropolitan Division if its top two defensemen in terms of minutes are Greene and Lovejoy. Severson needs to be that guy, especially if he lands the big extension he hopes before the season begins.
But in addition to minutes, the Devils would like to turn to Severson more in their own zone. Just 45.4 percent of his zone starts came in the defensive zone last season, which was the lowest on the team among any skater who played more than 25 games.
Meanwhile, Lovejoy and Greene were among the team leaders in that category with about two-thirds of their zone starts coming on defense. That could at least partially explain the poor possession numbers for those veterans.
So while New Jersey not only protected Severson in terms of ice time, head coach John Hynes also wouldn’t throw him into the fire too often with a defensive-zone faceoff. Of course, these two things are likely connected, as Severson probably played fewer minutes in games where the Devils had more defensive-zone faceoffs.
And like his fellow defensemen, that could explain why Severson’s possession numbers were superior to his teammates.
That figures to change in 2017-18. As the heir apparent to the No. 1 defenseman role in New Jersey, Severson should be asked by the Devils to eat more minutes. In each of the last two seasons, Severson skated at least 200 more minutes than the previous season. Following the same trend, he will skate more than 1,800 minutes in 2017-18, averaging 22:30 if he plays 80 games again.
If he plays that much, Hynes can’t protect him nearly as often and will have no choice but to start him more in the defensive zone. Allowing for additional minutes always has the potential for more scoring, but those extra minutes probably will come in the defensive zone (at least to start the play), so from a scoring perspective, it’s probably safe to expect about the same from Severson.
His possession numbers probably will take a step back, too, but performing more defensive responsibilities is the next step toward the 23-year-old fulfilling his full potential.